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Gridiron great Feathers’ baseball exploits worth remembering

Tanner Cook • May 23, 2020 at 6:15 PM

One of Southwest Virginia’s greatest football legends has one of the best unheralded stories from his days on the baseball diamond.

Virginia High graduate Beattie “Big Chief” Feathers was one of Tennessee’s first All-Americans on the gridiron, playing for Gen. Robert Neyland from 1931-33.

But Feathers loved to spend his summers pursuing a professional baseball career and was a Bo Jackson of his day.

Some of his highlights came from the early days of the Appalachian League.

ONE OF THE BEST IN BIG ORANGE

In high school, Feathers helped lead the Bearcats to a Class B state championship in 1926.

When he arrived in Knoxville, he became teammates with another former Bearcats standout: Gene McEver, a star halfback who in 1929 became the Vols’ first All-American and was two years his senior.

Feathers was an intricate part of the single-wing offense and he earned the nickname “Bounding Antelope” because of how easy and graceful he made running on the field look with his uniquely long stride. The Vols went 25-3-2 during Feathers’ playing days. He was named the MVP of the Southeastern Conference and earned All-America honors in 1933 and likely would have won the Heisman Trophy had the honor been given out then.

“Beattie didn’t think in terms of first downs, only in terms of touchdowns,” former teammate Freddy Moses once said.

Feathers broke Tennessee’s career rushing record with 1,888 yards, a mark that stood for 37 years. He scored 32 touchdowns in 30 games for Tennessee.

Feathers and McEver are both in the UT Hall of Fame, the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame. Feathers is a member of the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame.

“MONSTERS OF THE MIDWAY”

During his rookie year with the Chicago Bears — aka, the “Monsters of the Midway” — in 1934, Feathers became the first player in the short history of the NFL to eclipse 1,000 yards for the season. His official stats were 1,004 yards on 119 carries in 11 games.

The Bears of legendary coach George Halas went undefeated during the regular season that year —the first team to do so — and outscored their opponents 286-86.

The Bears suffered only one defeat that season, but it came in the NFL championship game when they fell to the New York Giants 30-13 in the infamous “Sneakers” game.

Feathers missed the Bears’ final three games after suffering a shoulder injury against the Chicago Cardinals.

The Bears had six future Pro Football Hall of Famers on that team, including Bronko Nagurski and Red Grange, who was in his final season.

On a team loaded with some of the greatest names in the first half-century of the NFL, Feathers was the star. He accounted for eight touchdowns that season and had a 158-yard game against the Green Bay Packers.

His average of 8.44 yards per carry stood as the league record for 72 years until Michael Vick broke it in 2006 when he averaged 8.45 yards on 123 carries.

Feathers later played for the Brooklyn Dodgers — the NFL team, not the baseball one — and had a one-game stint with the Packers in 1940.

IN THE SUMMERTIME

Professional baseball was in its heyday during the early parts of the 20th century. Even though Babe Ruth was in his final years, names like Carl Hubbell, Lou Gehrig and “Dizzy” Dean carried the game to great heights.

Feathers, too, wanted to make the big time on the diamond.

In 1936, when he also was playing for the Bears, he began his career with the Knoxville Smokies, then a Class A1 affiliate of the Boston Braves.

Fast-forward to 1939 when Feathers returned to his native Southwest Virginia and was an outfielder for the Pennington Gap Lee Bears of the Appy League.

On June 10 in his first game as a “Gapper,” Feathers hit a home run, but Pennington Gap fell to Kingsport 9-8. He duplicated the feat again in the next game and finished the season with three round-trippers in 66 games.

He batted .322 that season — second best on the team to Michael Surgent’s .358 — and made the Appy League All-Star team. But he didn’t finish the season with Pennington Gap because he was called up to Brooklyn to play football for the Dodgers.

Feathers hung up his baseball cleats after the 1943 season, finishing his career as a lifetime .316 hitter with 702 hits and 51 homers in 615 games over parts of six seasons.

THE WILD 1943 SEASON

The first Monday of May in 1943 was a big day for the Kingsport Cherokees, then a Washington Senators affiliate, and all Appy League fans.

Feathers — who had completed his football career three years earlier after his shoulder injury worsened — signed with the team on May 3 and reported to camp. The Cherokees opened the season the next day on the road against the Bristol Twins.

Only four teams were in the league at the time; the others were the Johnson City Cardinals and Erwin Aces.

The first month of the season was not the best for Kingsport, which was 14-13 entering June.

After three straight losses, manager Neal Millard unexpectedly resigned on June 4. Cherokees ace — and future Sullivan County Schools superintendent — J.C. “Lefty” Akard called it quits on the same day.

“I hate to do this, loving baseball as I do,” Millard told the Times News on June 6. “And the only reason I’m giving it up is because I just can’t work at my defense job and devote as much time to the team as I’d like to and as I should.”

Millard worked at the Fraser-Brace Engineering Co. and wanted to keep his work up to date there.

The same night, club President H. Joseph Higgins signed Feathers to be the team’s manager, but he kept his duties as Kingsport’s left fielder. So Feathers moved into a position he’d never filled before on the same day he saw his manager and teammate give up the game.

The Cherokees’ first game under Feathers didn’t go so well, either.

Appy League-leading Bristol crushed visiting Kingsport 16-1 in a game in which the Cherokees had to use three pitchers. Kingsport managed only four hits, all in the third inning.

Though his role as manager was a challenge, Feathers’ playing career kept clicking right along. On July 6 — through 49 games — he was leading the league in homers, with four, and batting .341, which was seventh in the league.

But there was another problem.

Feathers also was the football and baseball coach at Appalachian State Teachers College, leaving open the possibility that he wouldn’t be available for the Appy League playoffs, which would extend into the college football season.

That problem was solved in mid-July when — in the midst of World War II — the college announced it was discontinuing athletics for an extended time.

“The decision was made after a conference of the college’s athletic council, composed of Dean J.D. Rankin, Professor Bernard Daughtery and myself,” Feathers told the Times News in a July 15 article. “Appalachian this season will concentrate on a physical fitness program in keeping with the requirements of the armed forces.”

After finishing the season as the league leader in home runs (9) and batting .346, Feathers made his second Appy League All-Star team, a rare feat of nonconsecutive honors.

Kingsport — after dropping its first four games in the second half — finished the second half of the season with a 32-26 record and as the Appy League runner- up behind Bristol (37-28). The Cherokees won 15 of their last 19 games and 10 straight at one point.

Overall, the Cherokees finished 55-54. They were eliminated from the playoffs in three games by Bristol, which went on to win the Appy League title over Erwin.

Feathers’ managerial record that year was 41-41. Higgins offered him the opportunity to pilot the team for the 1944 season, and Feathers accepted.

“I wouldn’t want a better manager,” Higgins said. “Both of us together will try to give the Kingsport fans a hustling ballclub next year.”

FURTHER COACHING CAREER

Cherokees fans did not get to see skipper Feathers again the following season, however.

He accepted a job as North Carolina State’s football coach, a job that was “frozen” — meaning he couldn’t leave Raleigh once he arrived.

Akard replaced him as Kingsport’s manager and the Cherokees went on to win the Appy League title.

Feathers remained at N.C. State until 1951. He moved on to Texas Tech where he served as football and baseball coach from 1954-60. Then at Wake Forest from 1961-77, he filled multiple roles as an assistant football coach and as baseball coach (1972-75).

Feathers remained in Winston-Salem for 24 years and retired in 1978.

Feathers died on March 11, 1979, at the age of 69.

He is considered to be one of the finest football players ever from Virginia, but he also had a baseball career worth remembering.

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